Deger, Jennifer (2013) In-between. In: Schneider, Arnd, and Wright, Christopher, (eds.) Anthropology and Art Practice. Bloomsbury, London, UK, pp. 105-113.
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[Extract] Miyarrka Media formed in 2009 to create a new kind of shared art practice. In the beginning we were four: two senior Yolngu performers, a video artist, and an anthropologist. Drawing on contemporary Aboriginal aesthetic and social values, we experimented in the spaces between ritual, visual art, and ethnography.
In December 2011, we curated our first exhibition, Christmas Birrimbirr (Christmas Spirit)l. For those close to the project, this show held a particular poignancy. Earlier in the year, one of Miyarrka's cofounders, Fiona Yangathu, had died almost without warning. In our grief, we considered canceling the exhibition. But eventually Yangathu's husband and our project director, Paul Gurrumuruwuy, decided otherwise. "It will be hard," he said. "But it's the right time." And so Yangathu's death became the final galvanizing theme in a project concerned precisely with enlivening the relationships between the living and the dead at Christmas.
For Yolngu, Christmas preparations start in October when the first wulma thunder clouds form, heralding the approach of the wet season and the impending birth of Christ. As distant rumbling triggers memories of lost loved ones, quiet tears start to flow. So begins a ritual that embraces-and participates in-circuits of life, death, and rebirth. With songs such as "Christmas without You" and "Joy to the World" playing on high rotation, Yolngu families in remote Arnhem Land settlements use tinsel, lights, and photographs to highlight the absence of lost loved ones. Longing and luminosity comingle; homes and graves become sites of attraction for both the living and the dead. Drawn together through this work of feeling, families reunite in Christmas spirit.
The Christmas Birrimbirr (Christmas Spirit) installation experiments with generating this field of sensation and sentiment in a gallery space. Intended for both Yolngu and non-Aboriginal audiences, the installation uses video, photography, and painted sculptural elements to "share feelings," as Gurrumuruwuy put it, via the animating power of digital technologies. Radically humanist in its intentions, it seeks to offer the possibility of meaningful connection for all viewers-both Abongmal and non-Aboriginal-while simultaneously insisting on the enduring cultural differences between Yolngu and mainstream Australian culture.